German-Israeli relations have a significant opportunity to be further consolidated during this week’s inter-governmental consultations in Israel, with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm. Israel’s main objective should be addressing, understanding and building relations with the new generation of German leadership.
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This is the first time that Merkel, now into her third term as Chancellor, has insisted that her whole cabinet be present in the joint meeting with Israel – a move to diffuse recent tensions between Berlin and Jerusalem. Following last September’s elections there are 230 new members in the Bundestag, a vast majority of whom - as well as the ministers making up the new government - grew up in a modern post-war Germany and hold different views regarding their country’s interests, commitments and role in the world, than those of the generation of German parliamentarians they replaced.
In a previous visit, in 2012, Merkel told the Knesset: “Germany and Israel are and will always remain linked in a special way by the memory of the Shoah... Germany will never forsake Israel but will remain a true friend and partner.” Indeed, Germany has been at the forefront of strengthening relations between Israel and the European Union, based on shared values, challenges and interests, and has supported many important cooperation agreements over the last decade.
In foreign policy terms, this has been most marked by the dramatic improvement in Germany’s policy over the past decade. Traditionally, Germany has been Iran’s largest trading partner; around 50 German firms have established branches in Iran and leading German companies are involved in major Iranian infrastructure projects. By 2005, however, the tide began to turn. With the rise of the Christian Democrats, German policy toward Iran began to change, as a result of President Ahmadinejad’s outspokenness against Israel and the Jewish people, Iran’s uranium enrichment program, and its brutal suppression of domestic reformists. Germany graduated to membership in the P5+1 negotiation team with Iran and since 2010, has become a forceful advocate of sanctions against Iran in the technological, financial and energy fields.
Germany has also played a critical role in strengthening Israel’s deterrence capacities in supplying Israel with six Dolphin submarines, the most expensive weapon system in the Israeli Defense Forces. The German government subsidized approximately one third of the $3 billion procurement cost. Then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Der Spiegel magazine in 2012, “Germany is helping to defend Israel’s security. The Germans can be proud of the fact that they have secured the existence of the State of Israel for many years to come.”
Within the context of their special relationship, Israel and Germany have also run into areas of tension. In August 2012, Haaretz reported that Merkel requested that Netanyahu give more time for sanctions and diplomacy before any unilateral attack against Iranian nuclear facilities is made. A month later, the then German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told Netanyahu that a unilateral Israeli strike could dissolve the international coalition and hinted that Germany considers an Iranian bomb and bombing Iran as equally “dangerous.”
But antagonism between Netanyahu and Merkel has been gaining momentum especially in reaction to Israel’s policy in the West Bank. Germany’s leaders have called the expansion of settlements the single biggest impediment to the peace process. Calls to clarify German policy towards Israeli institutions and businesses operating beyond the 1967 lines have started to gain traction in influential center-left papers such as Süddeutsche Zeitung and are today evident – albeit in an undertone – in policies coming from the financial sector.
Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has accused Germany of hiding behind EU policies rather than operating within the conventions of the special relationship. Furthermore, although Germans are willing to support Israel’s right to security, its lack of empathy regarding Israel’s unique neighborhood reflects a growing inability to understand Israel’s genuine strategic threats, and reassure Israel of its commitment.
The overarching obstacle to Israeli-German relations is the changing of the guard, the natural process of a new generation of German leadership that has taken a step away from its traditional post-war stance, and is more suspicious of and less committed to Israel.
Germany’s new government has made a major strategic decision to become more involved in international affairs. It should be one of Israel’s top objectives to keep Germany onside as a strategic and reliable ally, not least because of its position as the fourth largest global economy and its increasing international influence.
Israel’s challenge in the upcoming inter-ministerial meetings and beyond is to work closely with this emerging German political generation and to win support for close relations with Israel by highlighting the joint interests that link Germany and Israel today and in the future – a set of common goals that make economic, strategic and moral sense to a cohort that will provide Germany’s leadership for the next several decades.
Raanan Eliaz is the co-founder and director general of ELNET, www.elnetwork.eu the European Leadership Network, an organization promoting closer relations between key European countries and Israel.